Since 1990, federal law has required colleges and universities to have a notification system for emergencies such as natural disasters, active shooters, bomb threats and more. K-12 schools are also required to develop emergency alerting protocols. Campuses send out critical information through multiple fronts, such as text alerts, broadcast emails, institution homepages, apps, and Twitter.
The Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 prompted campuses across the country to strengthen their notification systems. There have been a number of campus crisis over the years that have affirmed the need for these systems. There are a number of best practices campuses should follow in implementation and ongoing maintenance of their systems:
- Consolidate emergency notification delivery methods into a single activation portal- a provider of emergency communications solutions can help.
- Use several technologies; no one method of communication will reach everyone. However, choose the delivery methods most appropriate for the situation- don’t use the all-or-nothing approach to issuing alerts.
- Determine ahead of time the situations when you will activate your emergency notification system.
- Incorporate adequate logical security measures to protect your SMS alert database.
- Train several people to send out notifications, but also determine who has authority to issue alerts- there shouldn’t be too many decision makers.
- Collaborate with and consider sharing emergency notification providers with local, off-campus emergency services.
- Market your mass notification program, and educate the campus community on how the system is used, what to expect and what to do during an emergency.
- Automate your database; tie in student enrollment and human resource databases, automatically scan for students and employees no longer associated with the school.
- As with any parts of an institution’s emergency management and campus safety plan, it is important to test it throughout the year and various circumstances.
Text messaging is the most effective way to reach students, families, faculty, and staff. With an opt-in approach, students must voluntarily sign up for alerts, while with opt-out, students are automatically signed up but can choose to opt-out.
When schools automatically enroll everyone in the systems and provide them with an opt-out opportunity, significantly more people remain enrolled in the system. Most emergency managers and campus safety officials recommend automatically enrolling the whole community.
FCC regulations, federal law, and court rulings (https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-16-88A1.pdf) do allow for emergency texts and calls without prior consent from individuals.
Required or automatic enrollment should only be used for emergency messages and not for routine messages, event reminders, etc. Institutions must be careful to avoid “alert fatigue,” which occurs when a system is overused. If people on campus receive alerts too often, they stop seeing them as urgent and may not take the proper action when needed.
Campuses need to find a balance between using it for advisories and emergency notifications. If your campus needs any help with emergency management and campus safety work, please be in touch.